“Death is always more frightening when it strikes invisibly.” – The Master
This is a story with some striking visuals and good use of a previous enemy in an expanded version. Unfortunately, it also suffers from a serious overuse of CSO (early equivalent of today’s green screen) and jumpy editing, especially in several key scenes and cliffhangers. What could have been some great scary scenes with the killer doll suffer from the inability to bridge the CSO to real action gap. (By contrast, the living chair smothering McDermott works so much better for not having to include special effects.) Without a doubt, the most memorable and iconic part of the story is seeing the Autons decked out as oversized carnival dummies handing out deadly daffodils. All the more scary when we see the flower in action almost kill Jo Grant.
We get a rather good introduction to the Master here, both his normally suave and sinister self as well as his nearly unhinged viciousness when cornered. (Watch his sneer as he bats the poor bewildered man off the radio gantry.) I wonder who people first thought he was since he appears with the obvious sound of TARDIS and yet encountering another Time Lord was still a rare thing. It’s kind of cool how he just shows up in the middle of a circus and knows all about the huckster ringleader. All his signature traits are present from the start—hypnotic mind control, disguises, the Tissue Compression Eliminator, and his glee at trying to kill the Doctor (even if he doesn’t succeed). It’s interesting how much of a game both he and the Doctor see it as. The Master’s slight of hand escape at the end is actually a well-done and true surprise that you don’t see coming.
Another big introduction is to Jo Grant. She’s very earnest here and, despite purposefully setting her up as a bit bumbling and unintellectual since they wanted a person so different from the Doctor, they do at least make a point to show her people skills and a dogged efficiency so that’s she doesn’t come across as entirely useless. Indeed, noting those aspects more on this viewing made me like her more. To keep the drama, they do make the Doctor seems rather more tetchy than ever at the start, but I like that we can blame that on him missing Liz.
Our final introduction is to Mike Yates. Unlike Benton (who is more sidelined in this episode), Yates gets a big focus in his first story with lots of action sequences and dialogue as well as a purposeful rapport with our main characters. Meanwhile the Brigadiers is still very well-written and acted here, holding his own (barely) to the Doctor’s withering comments and just getting on with it in a soldierly way. I like Nicholas Courtney’s realistic telephone acting in the scene about the van.
Best (or worst) unsettling moments:
There are a shocking number of deaths by asphyxiation both on-screen and off in this story, a gruesome thought that you’d think would have been more glossed over in a children’s show. But the creepiest moment by far is the Auton police officer when struck by the car and tumbling down the hill. The way it falls and tumbles horribly at such as distance and then immediately starts scrambling back up without missing a beat emphasizes how inhuman it really is. (The stuntman who did that deserves much credit.)
- The Master (and all his core characteristics)
- The Tissue Compression Eliminator
- Dematerialization circuit
- “Change the polarity”
I really didn’t like the odd use of a Time Lord sent to warn the Doctor when I was a kid, mainly because it didn’t make sense to me how he could travel without a TARDIS. It’s still a bit off-putting now because their casual chat doesn’t fit with what to us seems to be the Doctor’s first interaction with them since his exile. This fits even more with the fan theory that a whole other set of experiences happened with the Time Lords and the Second Doctor between his trial and exile. [See Season 6B]
I’ve already complained about lazy CO as though they thought “why bother to make a realistic set when can just project something behind.” But the real regrets of the story are the glaring plot hole of the bomb in the radio tower (which requires us to believe Master stayed around and snuck it in just before Doctor entered which doesn’t make a lot of sense but is much more believable than thinking nobody else went in there when looking for the two missing people) and the overly quick change of heart by the Master from the Doctor just making a point that he can’t trust the Nestenes (although you could argue that he’d already started to detect some of the insolence they were showing to Farrel and this was just the final comment to convince him that they would not keep their word).